When Ken Tadashi Oshima, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Architecture in the College of Built Environments (CBE) at the University of Washington (UW), was 10 years old, he helped his mother design their family home in Colorado. As the two worked to bring together traditions of Japan with the United States, it gave him the first inkling of how people could shape their surroundings.
And Dianne Harris, Ph.D., Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) and Professor of History at the UW, had always been interested in landscapes, cities, and buildings—even before she realized she could build a profession out of their study. Built environments inspired questions about the past: Why did they look the way they did? Who were they built for? Who felt welcome in those spaces and who were they designed to exclude?
“Designed spaces matter far more than we think they do. They are highly consequential in everyday life now and in the past, even if we haven’t always understood them to be so,” she said.
This spring, Harris and Oshima were named Fellows of the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH). This honor is given to those who have distinguished themselves by a lifetime of significant contributions to the field. Their contributions may include scholarship, service, teaching, and stewardship of the built environment.
The SAH and inclusivity
“It’s a tremendous honor to be named an SAH Fellow,” said Harris. “I’ve learned more than I can say from my colleagues who are SAH members and from my involvement in the society. I’m truly grateful for their recognition of my work and contributions to the field.”
Oshima concurred. “It’s a great honor to join this esteemed group. I think they have done a lot over the past several decades to expand the field of architectural history beyond a Euro-centric purview and be more inclusive to feature different histories of built environments. It’s not just one book or one project: It’s broader,” he said.
SAH efforts focusing on inclusivity include “Race &”, a podcast exploring the influence of race and race-thinking on the built environment; an affiliate group, the Race + Architectural History Group, promoting research activities that analyze the racial discourses of architectural history; and the SAH IDEAS initiative, which shapes, supports, and informs the Society’s interrogation of structures of power and helps maintain a strong commitment to sociopolitical equity and environmental justice.
Oshima and Harris have both organized annual SAH conferences bringing together participants from around the world, helping build a knowledge of history of cultures that may have been previously overlooked. More recently, the COVID pandemic has offered a silver lining in terms of people’s ability to share in the learning through online conferences. Those who may not been able to afford travel could attend conferences that previously weren’t financially feasible through virtual means. This has resulted in a more diverse and globally inclusive audience.
Although the SAH offers many different initiatives, such as conference sessions and roundtable panels on race and architecture, it also facilitates research collaboration among groups and on committees, Oshima added.
This inspiration comes through at the UW as well, he said. “Within our College [CBE], EDI (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) has become foremost in how we gather and structure our research and teaching. The world can be so polarized. Fostering support and connections between all communities is crucial in how we can understand, treat each other, and learn.”
The campus itself also inspires Harris. Although one of the most beautiful she’s ever seen, she says, with a stunning setting that’s unparalleled, she remains conscious of being an uninvited guest on this land and cites the UW’s official acknowledgement that the land where the UW sits is the homeland of Coast Salish peoples, land which touches the shared waters of all tribes and bands within the Suquamish, Tulalip, and Muckleshoot nations.
“For me, that acknowledgement comes also with particular responsibilities that includes, among other things, teaching our students as much as we can about the deep and complex history of the lands we occupy,” she said. “That’s part of what we do as architectural, urban, and landscape historians.”
What buildings represent
At the UW, Oshima credits CBE’s strength in historian/practitioners together with the Humanities, Histories and Futures initiative to bring together faculty and students that bridge the domains of history, theory, and practice. Students come to understand design in the broader context of understanding what has been built, but also actively shape the future, focusing on how to solve contemporary problems and benefit everyday life in a more sustainable way, he explained.
“Architecture of the built environment is fundamental in that it’s connected to both science and humanities, as well as economics and society,” he said.
History is omnipresent: Every event and every moment of daily life takes place somewhere, in some space. We can travel and view buildings, cities, or landscapes and learn about their history, but it’s not a building alone that explains its history.
That role is filled by historians of built environments, who search for many sources from which they construct historical narratives. It involves rich, compelling, interdisciplinary work that uncovers how people lived their lives in the near and distant past around the world.
“Everything has a history, and the built environment is no exception,” Harris said. “In my view, understanding the past is the only way for us to understand the future, even if it’s also sometimes enough to simply understand the past.”
When we think about history, we can look at it through tens of thousands of years of the natural and built environment—or more immediately, we can look at existing buildings. We can look at how they are constructed, how they are demolished, and why. Oshima studies how people live, aspire to live, and how those changes should be sustainably addressed in design.
Rather than seeing buildings as static, Oshima looks to an organic, metabolically evolving built environment. “Buildings can be renovated or transformed over time to adapt to different demographics or uses. Rather than tearing down a structure, it can be reimagined. Today, structures such as the Pacific Place Shopping Center in downtown Seattle now face the challenge to meet different needs of the downtown population and small businesses, underscoring the necessity for design to be open to change on a variety of scales and temporalities” he said.
As part of a large public research institution, CBE interacts with the broader student body as well as the interests and research of faculty throughout the UW, including the College of Arts & Sciences. In the last year, Oshima says, CBE has fostered connections between disciplines such as humanities, history, and environmental studies to address changes to the environment. Climate change involves science but also a humanities-based understanding of human habitations and how it affects society.
Both Harris and Oshima have explored in detail how architecture and the built environment can shift from a Euro-American-centric view to one that is more inclusive of the world at large. Although Harris is a relative newcomer to the UW, she has been working on questions that focus on race, belonging and exclusion in the built environment for more than 30 years. Decades of her work have focused on the ways the built environment and its representations in drawings, prints, advertisements, photography, and texts is linked to notions of racial, ethnic, and class identity.
And Oshima has always been interested in helping students engage in a broader dialogue and expand beyond borders and cultures, keeping history in mind.
“I always look to the past, present, and future so we don’t make the same mistakes. I seek to provide open-ended frameworks for students and encourage them to make their own choices and create their own domains. Imagine what you can do—and actually start to build it,” he said.
Carin Moonin is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon.
Architecture graduate students provide options for dense and diverse housing. | The Urbanist
The history of American Unitarian church architecture is one that’s lesser-known. With this in mind, Ann Marie Borys, associate professor of architecture, wanted to provide context for two extremely highly regarded Unitarian projects of the 20th century that had only been written about independently. Her new book explores how they fit into the broader scope of Unitarian churches.
“American Unitarian Churches: Architecture of a Democratic Religion” explores Unitarian church design and the progressive ideals shown through them — ideals that were central to the founding of the United States. By situating Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple and Louis Kahn’s First Unitarian Church of Rochester in their full context, Borys writes about the interconnectedness of American democracy and American architecture.
We asked Borys about the book.
Why did you want to write this book?
I initiated the research in an effort to provide context for two extremely highly regarded architectural projects of the 20th century. Each one had been written about independently with regard to its place in the architect’s creative oeuvre and its “moment” in American architecture. And they had sometimes been discussed in relation to each other (though separated by 50 years) because they were both Unitarian churches. But there was very little written about how they fit into the broader scope of Unitarian churches.
I soon discovered that there were quite a lot of Unitarian churches from both the 19th and 20th centuries that were also architecturally significant. So the book that emerged became a narrative of Unitarian church design as a central factor in the development of American architecture itself.
Why has this contribution not been evident in narratives of American architectural history previously? Why is it important to bring this to light?
A simplistic explanation is that architectural history was first developed as a chronology of styles, and then a narrative of architect-heros. It was in the later part of the 20th century that larger social and cultural patterns began to be studied. By then, Unitarianism represented a very small portion of the population, and it was not widely understood to have historical roots connected with those of the country itself.
It is important partly because there are some misconceptions about the two buildings that prompted my research—Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple, and Louis Kahn’s First Unitarian Church of Rochester. But more broadly speaking, it is important because it adds a significant body of work to an issue of theoretical importance: What is an ‘architecture of democracy’?
What’s the connection between faith and architecture?
This is a trick question with respect to Unitarian churches. Most faiths build churches that support specific rituals spatially, that express beliefs symbolically, and that aspire to place the church-goers in some relation to the divine. Unitarianism is unusual because it has never had rituals, and in the 20th century, the question of religious belief was transferred from clergy to the individuals. So there can be a wide variety of beliefs in any congregation. This makes the design of a memorable architectural space more difficult.
What elements of Unitarian spirituality are expressed through the architecture of its churches?
I found three things to be in the foreground of Unitarian churches: awareness of nature and with that, the interconnectedness of all things; respect for the individual coupled with responsibility for others; and the necessity for individuals to share knowledge and ideas in a community.
How are the ideals/values of Unitarianism shown through the design of their buildings/spaces?
The awareness of nature and natural processes is evident either directly through generous views promoting connection between the sanctuary and surrounding gardens or natural features or it is present through daylight and through the use of natural materials. Respect for the individual and for individual choice is evident in the way that doors into the sanctuary are located as one choice among others, and in the non-hierarchical arrangement of space in the sanctuary. The necessity to share ideas for the enrichment of all is present in the provision of ample social spaces in addition to a space for worship.
The combination of these features creates an architecture of democracy.
What do you hope readers take away from this book?
I hope that readers will understand that Unitarianism was a mainstream denomination in America throughout the 19th century, and that many of our country’s progressive social and cultural advancements were led by Unitarians. I hope that they will be able to appreciate how Unitarianism remains true to its original philosophies and values–values which were formed along with and were practically identical to the American democratic ideals articulated by the founding documents of this country. I hope they will understand that Unitarianism is a democratic religion, and that its architecture is an expression of authentically American ideals.